Photo/IllutrationA freight vessel travels the Arctic Ocean shipping route. (Provided by Rosatomflot)

  • Photo/Illustraion

Amid heated competition between Russia and China to take the lead in the Arctic Ocean, Japan has begun warming up to the idea of securing its own interests in the region as well.

In the basic marine plan adopted in a Cabinet meeting in May, the government pinpointed the Arctic Ocean as a major target for its policies for the first time.

It is aiming to utilize the abundant natural resources and the shipping route between East Asia and Europe, and plans to be actively involved in creating international rules.

It is estimated that a quarter of the unconfirmed oil and natural gas reserves in the world are in the Arctic Ocean.

In addition, the possibility of utilizing the Arctic Ocean shipping route along the Russian coasts is growing because sea ice is expected to disappear around 2030 at the earliest due to global warming.

The shipping route is believed to be 40 percent shorter than the one connecting East Asia and Europe through the Suez Canal.

At present, however, there is no legal framework that stipulates rules on the peaceful use of the Arctic Ocean, such as the one that exists for Antarctica, called the Antarctic Treaty.

To rectify such a situation, the government wrote in the basic marine plan its goals that it aims to realize freedom of navigation in the Arctic Ocean based on the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea and also to secure national interests there through a framework of multilateral dialogues.

An international conference of science ministers to discuss development of the Arctic Ocean is scheduled to be held in Berlin in October. The Japanese government is considering dispatching its officials to the meeting.

In the same month, a different international conference on the Arctic Ocean is expected to be held in Iceland with leaders of governments participating. Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono plans to attend.

“(Kono) will urge participating countries to prevent friction between them from leading to tense situations or confrontations in the Arctic Ocean,” a government official said.

Behind the move stands the strong claims of Russia and China.

Russia, which is a coastal country of the Arctic Ocean, regards the ocean as its “backyard” and has planted its national flag on the sea bottom of the North Pole, according to a Japanese government official.

As for natural resources, such as natural gas, which were extracted in Russia’s exclusive economic zones (EEZ) and continental shelves, it has also decided to apply the law that stipulates that only Russian-registered vessels are allowed to transport them to their first unloading ports.

Russia has also set up military facilities at 545 places in or around the Arctic Ocean since 2013.

China also compiled a white paper on policies concerning the Arctic Ocean in January this year.

The paper called the ocean “the silk road on ice,” similar to the country's “One Belt One Road Initiative,” also referred to as “the silk road economic belt and the 21st-century maritime silk road."

The initiative, which is promoted by Chinese President Xi Jinping, aims to create a vast economic zone stretching from East Asia to Europe through land and sea routes.

In 2012, the Chinese ice-breaking research ship Xue Long succeeded as the first Chinese vessel to cross the Arctic Ocean without entering Russia’s EEZ.

“There is a possibility that China will strengthen its military presence (in the Arctic Ocean) by deploying its submarines there,” a Japanese government official said.

According to Fujio Onishi, associate professor at Hokkaido University’s Arctic Research Center, the United States is considered a coastal country along the Arctic Ocean because of the presence of Alaska. However, the United States is not interested in maintaining international order in the ocean, he said.

“In such a situation, the Arctic Ocean has now become a political hot spot because countries that want to change the status quo are trying to increase their power there in addition to outer space and cyberspace,” Onishi said.

“It is necessary for Japan to strengthen its political presence there (by taking the lead in providing technological assistance and creating a legal framework),” he added.